FOR AT LEAST 150 YEARS, the left-wing world has wondered what is wrong with the United States. Beginning from the rise of workers’ movements in Europe in the second half of the 19th century, something has appeared off about the class politics of the United States. In 1867, E. L. Godkin, the founding editor of The Nation, observed that in Europe, in contrast to the United States,
the workingman on a strike is not simply a laborer who wants more wages: he is a member of a distinct order in society, engaged in a sort of legal war with the other orders. […] His employer is not simply a capitalist in whose profits he is seeking a larger share: he is a member of a hostile class.
The reasons proposed for America’s supposedly underdeveloped socialist left are numerous, and few come now as surprises. The United States lacked a feudal past and offered widespread white male suffrage far earlier than other capitalist societies; this enabled the incorporation of the working class into democratic processes and prevented more radical forms of class struggle. American prosperity inhibited socialist ideology — socialism here crashed “on the shoals of roast beef and apple pie,” as Werner Sombart famously put it in 1906. Or the settler colonial experience was to blame: the availability of conquered and ethnically cleansed land for homesteading offered a “safety valve,” depressurizing urban class relations. Relatedly, and perhaps most influentially, the country’s ethnic and racial heterogeneity and hierarchy fragmented the working class and strengthened undemocratic institutions.
Such debates often invite counterfactual speculation. What would have happened had the giant Knights of Labor withstood the repression that followed the 1886 Haymarket affair, the moment pinpointed by sociologist Kim Voss as the key? Or what if the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World had not split, or the country had not entered World War I, or if the left-led unions had survived McCarthyism, or if labor had organized the South in the 1940s?
The problem with such hypotheses is that one can’t test them, comparing across multiple timelines. But one can compare between different countries, and it’s this challenge that sociologist Barry Eidlin takes on in his new book, Labor and the Class Idea in the United States and Canada. While Canada is clearly a participant in the neoliberal turn, significant elements of its social democratic state have survived; the relative success of this defensive action is Eidlin’s subject. Canada, he points out, featured many of the qualities that supposedly made the United States exceptional. It too was a settler colonial project with a basically liberal political tradition originating in Britain. It too had a bitterly hostile bourgeoisie. While it lacks a comparable legacy of slavery, Canada is also a white supremacist society. Despite all these similarities, the class politics of the two countries diverged significantly in the postwar period.
In Canada today, union density stands at 28 percent — nearly three times where it is in the United States. Labor law is enforced and it functions relatively effectively to protect workers’ rights to organize. With these differences come a whole host of others — in social policy, in the degree and structure of inequality. “Despite strong economic, social, and cultural similarities,” Eidlin writes, “the two countries differ sharply when it comes to class politics.” Americans know this intuitively about our northern neighbor, expressing it when we marvel at Canada’s relatively humane health care system and its still-affordable universities. To be sure, Canadians today also have a predatory ruling class (observable in action when Justin Trudeau fights to advance pipeline construction); but its room to run, by American standards, seems a bit more limited. How did the Canadian working class achieve this?
Eidlin’s answer lies in how the demands of the working class are “articulated” politically. In the United States, labor appears as one of many competing interest groups — the “pluralist” conception of politics. It belongs to the broad coalition that makes up the Democratic Party, but the Democrats can hardly be said to be labor’s party. In Canada, on the other hand, there is a three-party system across most of the country. The Liberals and the Conservatives mirror the Democrats and Republicans quite closely, but on their left is the New Democratic Party, a social democratic formation that emerges from and, in important ways, belongs to the organized working class. The presence of the NDP in Canadian politics means that labor has an independent political voice. Labor thus appears in Canadian political life not as one singer in the choir of interest groups, but as a class in a class-divided society. This didn’t come about because Canadians just think differently than Americans — as though the northern country somehow naturally has more left-wing people; it’s because of a specific historical chain of events, leaving lasting imprints on Canadian culture and society.
Eidlin traces a causal chain that begins with the Depression. Prior to the 1930s, the divide between the major parties had not mapped clearly onto the class conflicts, and socialism had often found political expression in countless independent organizations. To some extent this tradition continued into the Depression, with new labor-affiliated parties springing up in multiple states. But Franklin Roosevelt’s Democrats, under pressure of workers’ insurgency in the early 1930s and the independent political efforts coming out of those movements, decided to co-opt labor and give it legal standing with the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. The wave of successful union organizing in the second half of the 1930s then rolled forward under Roosevelt’s blessing. Organized labor famously put out material declaring, “The President Wants You to Join a Union” — a punchier gloss of his more tentative comment: “If I went to work in a factory, the first thing I’d do would be to join a union.”
In Canada, on the other hand, the social upheaval triggered by the Depression was met with repression and coercion, not cooptation. The Liberals were in power when the crisis struck, and Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King was so committed to the fantasy of class comity that, even after he was ejected from office, he wrote that “the country was happy and contented, [manufacturers] & labour alike but for the election propaganda.” The Conservatives who replaced him promised to crush subversive activities with “the iron heel of ruthlessness.” Neither party, then, attempted a co-opting move like Roosevelt’s. As a result, activists joined together to found the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation, a social democratic party that linked together agrarian discontent in the West with the industrial working class of Ontario. Where young progressive intellectuals in the United States poured into Washington to work for the New Deal, the Liberals and Conservatives were devoid of intellectual energy, and this phenomenon instead occurred within the CCF, and its affiliated League for Social Reconstruction. The Canadian Congress of Labour voted to designate the CCF (later renamed the NDP) as its “political arm” in 1943 — the same year that the United States’s insurgent industrial unions established their political action committee to round up votes for Roosevelt’s Democrats.
In other words, American labor did better in the 1930s and 1940s than its Canadian counterpart. It influenced the political system more rapidly and more effectively, produced favorable legislative reform sooner, and gained membership faster. All this, in turn, is why it is weaker now.
Because Canadian labor wasn’t incorporated into the mainstream of the political system, and instead maintained its own voice, it didn’t fall half-asleep in the postwar period the way American unions did. It didn’t have to share a coalition with liberals who turned on the radicals at the first opportunity, as happened in the late 1940s in the United States. While Canadian labor law reform had followed the American example of the 1930s, it ceased to do so when American labor policy turned rightward in the 1940s: there is a quite similar Canadian version of our landmark 1935 National Labor Relations Act, but no equivalent to the restricting Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which instituted right-to-work, banned numerous potent forms of solidarity, and led to the purge of communists from the unions. Accordingly, when the 1960s and 1970s came around, the social movements of the New Left flowed into the Canadian labor movement much more than they did the American, widely seen as conservative and inert.
When the 1970s brought about major structural changes in the global economy and employer offensives against labor, this context proved determinative. A Canadian commission on workplace issues noted a “disparity between the rights of the individual as a worker and his rights as a citizen,” and credited unions for “the curbing or elimination of arbitrary authority in the hands of management.” On the other hand, an equivalent study by the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare discussed problems in the workplace in terms of individual alienation — not collective power. What Eidlin calls “the class idea” still lived in Canada, but had nearly vanished in the United States. Thus when labor movements in both countries sought to reform their 1930s and ’40s vintage labor regimes, they had very different experiences. Democrats in full control of the government in the late 1970s neglected labor’s agenda, while the Canadian state significantly strengthened protections for workers and unions. What had been quite similar labor relations regimes and levels of union strength since the war began to diverge, and the gap has only widened.
Eidlin’s book is, subtly, a cultural history of class in the guise of comparative historical and political sociology. It’s a story of how an idea took hold in one country and not the other, thanks to an organization dedicated to its propagation. “[T]heory,” Marx famously wrote, “becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses.” The line, given in the context of a discussion of religion’s social power, is meant to challenge the notion that ideology is irrelevant simply because it is secondary to material relations of wealth and power. The story Eidlin tells is just the sort of thing Marx had in mind when he pointed to the role that ideas can play, too.
In fact, this book itself is a tribute to the power of a certain idea, taken seriously and transmitted over time. That idea is Trotskyism and the interpretation developed of 20th-century history from within that tradition. Eidlin’s instrument for intervening in the “why no socialism” debate is the intellectual inheritance of the Fourth International.
Through much of the last century, the socialist left was locked in a strategic and historical debate about the crucible of the 1930s: had the strategy of the Communist Party in the Great Depression advanced the cause of socialism, or watered it down and allowed it to be co-opted? The Communist International (Comintern) initially opposed alliances between communists and center-left forces. But Moscow softened that position by the mid-1930s, in response to the growing threat of fascism. In this country, the Popular Front of 1935–1939 brought the high-water mark of communism: the Party’s militants, insisting that communism was a full-fledged part of the American tradition, joined in the political coalition behind the New Deal. They also built up the labor movement, organizing millions of long-ignored semi-skilled and unskilled workers through the new Committee for Industrial Organization. The extraordinary late 1930s triumphs of the labor movement depended on the on-the-ground leadership of communists and their cooperation within a larger Popular Front.
But this approach enraged Trotsky and his allies. The Popular Front, they argued, brought communists into an alliance not just with other working-class forces outside Moscow’s orbit (which was necessary), but with bourgeois liberals — in the United States, the Democrats. It obfuscated rather than clarified the lines of class conflict, promoting a kitschy and sentimental populism. And it deprived the working class of an independent political voice. With their vulgar insistence on their so-called “Americanism,” American communists dissolved the class conflict logic of their own movement.
While the Popular Front brought the Communist Party and the labor movement both their greatest successes, these — the Trotskyists argued — were only the wages of opportunism, and would not endure. After Pearl Harbor, communists and their then-allies in the CIO unions promised that they would control workplace militancy in order to keep war production humming for the antifascist military alliance — the kind of betrayal of the working class that Trotskyists believed the Popular Front strategy inevitably required. Finally, by the time the Cold War began, the Democrats and mainstream officials of the labor movement had what they wanted from their erstwhile red allies — a mass working-class base firmly ensconced in their unions and voting for their candidates — and could allow McCarthyism to dispense with them. Communists were driven out of the unions they had built, the radical edge of the New Deal was effaced, and the midcentury liberal consensus took hold.
Eidlin’s book adds a compelling postwar addendum to the Trotskyist critique. He points out, for example, that the National Labor Relations Board is staffed with representatives of the parties rather than, as in its equivalents elsewhere, representatives of the classes. Subordinated to the interests of the Democratic Party, the apparatus of labor law became frozen after the 1940s in the United States. Through its alliance with the Democrats, labor was trapped into support for the Cold War and contradictory paralysis in the face of the Civil Rights movement. On the other hand, the Canadian movement evaded all these traps. Yet the question of whether there was another path remains ultimately unanswered.
In adjudicating why labor was co-opted in either country, Eidlin assigns agency to political leaders of the mainstream parties. In essence, Roosevelt did it, triumphing in factional conflict within his party, while his Canadian counterparts refused or failed. (Roosevelt’s success in this endeavor, ratified in the “Popular Front” election of 1936, depended upon the strategic errors of the Communist Party, but this point — while fundamental — Eidlin only argues semi-explicitly.) In this way, Eidlin somewhat hedges on the question of inevitability. While he claims that Democratic incorporation of the working class was “not preordained,” he also offers no credible counterfactual within the American context — instead offering up Canada for an alternative. It’s difficult to discern from this book whether the success of the NDP in Canada means there was an alternative to the Popular Front in the United States — and it’s not clear that Eidlin really thinks so.
Although Eidlin is at pains to suggest that there was no preexisting favorable environment for labor in Canada, the book still has some trouble navigating the race question. He discreetly acknowledges this by saying that the New Deal “exacerbated” preexisting divisions in the American working class. (Read: racism.) But he argues that white supremacy in the United States is still an insufficient distinction to explain its divergence from Canada, because American white supremacy long predated the divergence between the countries in the 1930s. This is a somewhat mechanical and surface-level account of how race works in class politics. In the pre-Depression period, the United States’s tradition of independent labor radicalism flourished right alongside the country’s racism, as in, say, 1878 — when the Workingmen’s Party rose to power in California campaigning on a platform of socialism and anti-Chinese xenophobia. There’s no reason to believe that an independent working-class party could have emerged and triumphed in the early 1930s while shaking off this tradition. Indeed it is striking that the examples of independent working-class politics from that decade that Eidlin cites are from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Washington, Oregon, and California. It was, on the other hand, the Popular Front’s forces that built successful interracial movements in Detroit, Chicago, New York, and — as Robin D. G. Kelley famously narrates in his book Hammer and Hoe — the Deep South. The divergence of class politics between the two countries in the 1930s thus cannot be used as a test to adjudge the historical force of racism. The United States’s racialized class structure often worked through complex, mediated forms of determination as well as direct ones — but it always worked, and it fundamentally conditioned the scenario of the 1930s, within which it is difficult to imagine the transcendence of the Democratic Party.
This returns us to the problem. There was no visible alternative to alliance with the Democrats, and the alliance with the Democrats was a racist trap. Socialism in the United States, then, emerges from this narrative appearing defeated in advance — precisely not the account that any socialist wants to give.
Defeat as a perennial experience is, of course, a core element of the Trotskyist history and experience. It’s a tradition, after all, that bears the name of a defeated exile. It has thus always looked to me, a generally nonsectarian socialist, much the way I imagine all of us on the socialist left must look to everyone else: committed to an uncompromising ideal out of some otherworldly conviction. On the other hand, the beating heart of a revolutionary tradition is precisely such a commitment — one of the great paradoxes of Marxism, a historically grounded belief in the reality of a world yet to come. It is out of this endurance that Trotsky’s inheritors have played heroic roles in countless workplace and political struggles, in the United States and around the world. It is impossible to imagine today’s reawakening socialist left without them.
Today, the new socialist left is roiling with debate and uncertainty about participation in liberal politics, over whether and when to avow socialism explicitly and when to dress it up as social democracy or “New Deal liberalism.” The point of Eidlin’s book, that class consciousness requires explicit political expression, bears directly on this question. Meanwhile, the US-Canada comparison now seems jumbled. Earlier this decade, the NDP, longtime vessel of Canadian working-class politics, abandoned its explicit commitment to socialism in favor of social democracy. Meanwhile, avowed socialists are infiltrating the Democratic Party. One might fairly accuse such figures of being garden-variety social democrats trading on a more radical image, but the phenomenon is thus far much too inchoate to judge: surely, it will prove both fertile and maddening in ways we can only barely anticipate, and all of us will find ourselves both making compromises and drawing hard lines in unexpected places. The question is how to tell where to do either. At each moment from the formation of the Popular Front through the postwar era, many of the choices of the labor movement made sense in their specific context, even as they led gradually toward disaster.
Eidlin’s book compels us to reckon with the central role of political organization in working-class formation and identity. Class consciousness requires collective political voice. At the same time, solidarity must be built; it cannot be assumed to exist in advance, merely awaiting its proper spokesperson. As we saw in the 1990s when progressives in the American labor movement attempted to form a Labor Party, saying the right thing doesn’t make it so.
How to transcend these paradoxes is by no means obvious. How can we attain and defend marginal gains while holding out a larger vision? The same practices that sustained a struggle in one period may not bear fruit when opportunity knocks; lessons we once learned well may misguide us in another moment. (Indeed, this is a major point of the book: what worked for American labor in the 1930s failed it after the war.) Advocating socialism in hard times means cleaving to the belief that old answers can yet find new questions — that theory can, under the right circumstances and with enough work, become a material force borne forward by the organizations we build. This is precisely the historical strength and value of a militant tradition. But it’s in the moment that theory grips the masses that the theory, and its adherents, find themselves on alien ground. Left-wing organizations always become something other than initially envisioned as they succeed and grow. This is the reason that Trotsky named history a “merciless laboratory” — we must experiment, but we cannot predict and control the outcomes as we wish.